Berkshire Newsmaker | Six questions for Carole Owens
'Preserves in words': Historian, author and Eagle contributor Carole Owens actually wrote the book about the grand old summer houses of the Berkshires. A summer resident of the Berkshires since 1976, she moved here for good in 1990 from New York, where she worked as a clinical therapist. Her first book, "Berkshire Cottages" (1984), was an effort to "preserve in words what we can no longer preserve in fact." After decades of work as an advocate, chronicler and fundraiser for preserving the region's history, she was honored on Wednesday by Preservation Massachusetts with the Paul & Niki Tsongas Award. Eagle correspondent Christopher Marcisz spoke with her:
1. How did your interest in old homes begin?
My mother. Her idea of a Saturday out with her daughter was to go to real estate open houses. She loved houses, and the love translated to me. So I played hooky, and left the playground of Kenwood Elementary School to go to the uber-rich area near Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis where I grew up to look at the houses. I could do so because I was a cute, well-behaved little girl, and so was allowed in the houses to look around.
2. How did you decide to move from looking at houses to writing about them?
When I came to the Berkshires there were all these monoliths, these enormous houses that were boarded shut. They were like hollow-eyed giants, dotting the landscape. It was like the world's best mystery story — I wanted to know what they were, who built them, why so many. I started looking for a book on the subject, about the Berkshire cottages, and there wasn't one. So piece by piece, I researched them over two or three years. And my then-husband said to me, 'Well, we've established two things: There is no book on the Berkshire cottages, and now you are the only one prepared to write it. So sit down and do it.'
3. Did writing come naturally?
I always wrote. In my field, I wrote grants and program designs, diagnoses and prognoses, articles for journals and so forth.
4. What is the status of preservation projects around the Berkshires? Is there another project you'd like to generate interest in?
Well, I worked very hard on Ventfort Hall, and am just delighted with the outcome there. Isn't that a wonderful site? I was beyond relieved and delighted when the Mount solved their financial problems. I think Susan Wissler is a brilliant leader over there.
I was disappointed with what happened with the William Russell Allen House in Pittsfield. We were successful at raising $250,000, overwhelmingly from the state, to stabilize the building, which makes me happy. But I wish there were the funds and a viable use plan to go forward and actually restore it. The problem there I think is more that it is hard to develop a viable use because of its location and the way it is surrounded by other buildings. If a viable use could be developed, I believe the money could be raised. But the Allen House is still on my mind. We did our best, but were not 100 percent successful.
5. You shifted gears a little in your most recent book, "Remarkable Women of New England Daughters, Wives, Sisters, and Mothers — The War Years 1754 to 1787."
I proposed an entirely different book. I was interested in love, courtship and marriage rituals in 18th-century New England. Why New England? Because in the 18th and 19th centuries, that's where the concentration of the American population was. That is what I was interested in, and I proposed it to the publisher and they came back and said, "No, but how about writing about remarkable women?" I thought, well, heck, that sounds like fun.
6. I imagine there was some overlap between the two ideas.
Sure, in love, courtship and marriage, generally there's often a woman involved somewhere.
7. What's next?
That book is about remarkable women of the 18th century, during the Revolutionary period from the French and Indian War to Shays' Rebellion. That invites a follow-up about remarkable women of the 19th century, and I sure would like to do that.
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